The NPR series “1A” recently hosted an especially interesting discussion of “Lost in the World of Audio Fiction,” a form of entertainment popular on network radio beginning in the 1930s. After a long run, the medium mostly died out by the early 1980s. The “1A” program noted, however, dramatized audio fiction has come back again in the 2010s in the form of creative podcasts.
An exception was “Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater” in 1982, as other radio shows were ceasing production; Steven Thomas Oney, the series’ creator, writer, director and producer, started producing audio dramas, using Cape Cod for local color. As many of these episodes are themed with Christmas in mind, I decided to explore the unique world of audio fiction on the Massachusetts Cape.
When I recently interviewed Oney, we expressed surprise that in all the years since he began this project, he has produced just 34 episodes. He revealed that this was due to the painstaking sound design of the series. These are not mere studio-manufactured sound effects – Oney and his team record authentic, live sounds for his audio fiction! “Cape Cod has the two best sound effects in the world,” he explained.
“Fog horns and bell buoys, as well as the water sounds of the ocean itself. The best time for recording sound effects outdoors is generally right around twilight when the sounds of the day end and before the sounds of night kick in.” Yet he cautions: “One hazard of recording sound effects of crowds and groups of people is some of them may notice what you are doing and wander over to inquire what you’re up to in the middle of recording.”
The series airs on Halloween on radio station WOMR in Cape Cod’s Provincetown and has been broadcast here in our area on WAMU as well as over other NPR affiliates. Regular airing is not possible, however, in part because these episodes have widely varying lengths! “The Caller on Line One” runs just 36 minutes, while the Christmas-themed 22-part story for children “The Mystery of the Mouse Made of Dough” plays a full 8 hours!
Some of this variation stems from the fact that “Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater” is three series: “The Captain Underhill Mysteries,” “Tales of Suspense,” and episodes which simply defy either classification but often share a Christmas theme.
The first series follows retired police captain Waverly Underhill. With his brilliant mind and the aid of his physician friend Dr. Alexander Scofield, Underhill solves seemingly insoluble crimes around the Cape.
Many of these cases are fictionalized accounts of real historical events on Cape Cod: “The Junebug Mystery” takes place at the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, while “The Case of the Four Little Beatles” is a mystery drawn from lyrics to Beatles songs, and includes actual dialogue which occurred at a sandwich shop in West Barnstable when the real Beatles visited the Cape.
The most recent episode, “Riddle of the Bones” (performed before a live audience in October 2019), builds its mystery utilizing actual historical facts concerning the sinking of the pirate ship Whydah, in 1717, as well as written historical accounts from 1849 when Henry David Thoreau walked around the outer arm of Cape Cod and wrote about it in his travelogue novel.
Of particular interest for the Christmas season is Oney’s re-telling of the celebrated holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Oney has reimagined the classic movie as a live Cape Cod radio broadcast “during which things go badly wrong as something extremely odd occurs, (and then) the cast and crew must cope with it.”
To make the show work, Oney had to find voice artists able to evoke convincing imitations of the original Hollywood stars of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In fact, Robin Russell, the performer playing the Jimmy Stewart character of George Bailey, sounds uncannily like Stewart, in part because he grew up in Jimmy Stewart’s hometown in western Pennsylvania.
Fans of the classic holiday film will be interested to learn the episode is available on compact disc as “You Can’t Go Home Again, George Bailey, or “Look Homeward Angels, Second Class.”
The show is neither a recreation nor a sequel to the classic Frank Capra film, although it has elements of both. Instead, it translates the moral dilemmas and angelic intervention into the world of today, with a similarly contemporary, yet compelling, ending.
Christmas is often connected to Oney’s works. He explains: “Many of our shows are combined in one way or the other to the yuletide season: “The Case of the Murdered Miser,” “The Ghost of Christmas on Trial,” and “The Mystery of the Mouse Made of Dough.” My primary reason for writing these episodes is that, like Charles Dickens, I have always been a sucker for Christmas stories!”
Similarly, many of the “Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater” episodes reference Dickens. “Murdering Dickens,” for instance, is a recreation of the murder scene from Oliver Twist, as read by Dickens on stage. Oney describes the show as a “Victorian radio thriller before radio even existed before the medium had been formed.”
I highly recommend this production this holiday season.